Whittier Boulevard Revisited

The classic music of East L.A. band Thee Midniters still rocks!

By Frankie Firme ~ Contributing Editor
Published on LatinoLA: February 4, 2009

Whittier Boulevard Revisited

It is always gratifying to me and others in the Chicano Music world whenever there is recognition from beyond our respective community for the history, accomplishments, and influence the music has created outside of our assumed cultural boundries.

One area outside of these virtual boundries (music has no real boundaries, for sure) is Europe, the birthplace of documented music in the civilized world.

One area in particular is Scotland, where a friendly group of music loving homies (or "bravehearts" as they sometimes refer to themselves as) has discovered and enjoyed classic 1960's American rock n' roll, soul, and oldies music for a few years, and share their enjoyment via their international Internet website www.glasgowmods.com.

This has contributed to an increased awareness of Chicano music overseas , for which I, along with many others, stand humbly grateful.

Some months ago, they presented a wonderful tribute to the Southern California "Eastside Sound" by paying tribute to such 1960's Chicano music pioneers Cannibal & The Headhunters, The Blendells, and others. This resulted in a increased foreign listening audience of the popular Internet Radio station www.eastLArevue.com, which offers this, and other types of music American-born Chicanos enjoy and help keep alive.

Recently, a couple of listeners who enjoyed Thee Midniters "On Whittier Boulevard" tribute show on the Vinyl Clasics page on the East L.A. Revue website wrote to me about Thee Midniters.

They correctly surmised that the title track of that classic 1965 Chattahoochie Records release "Whittier Boulevard" bore a striking resemblance to the original 1964 song "2120 Michigan Ave" by England's famed Rolling Stones band from their 2nd U.S. release "12 x 5" (London Records # 402).

They asked for a little inside history about the song, the band, and about what times were like back in East L.A. during the 1960's , when the song

"Whittier Boulevard " epitomized Chicano music, cruising, and the "Eastside Sound", putting Chicano rock n' roll and a section of Los Angeles on the music map, setting a standard for other bands to follow.

I remember the opening "Arriba!, Arriba!" and following scream as a take off the 1950's NS 60's Warner Brother's cartoon character and hero "Speedy Gonzalez", a character taken off the air during the Chicano Movimiento of the late 1960's as he was seen as a stereotype of Mexican Americans and source of ridicule, thereby deemed offensive.

Not being politically astute as a young kid, I saw Speedy as a hero because he always won against the bad guys, thereby making him a winner. My young friends and I tried hard to emulate keyboard player Ronnie Figueroa's almost demonic scream (or "grito") as "Whittier Boulevard" played on almost every AM rock & roll radio station in Los Angeles, and my older brothers and cousins played the 45 record daily.

The song eventually went on to become a cultural monument of sorts, identifying a new found appReciation of the fledgling Chicano music scene, and Thee Midniters became the vanguard of a music revolution that exists to this day.

Original band member and drummer George Salazar, who played on the 'Whittier Boulevard" recording remembers: "Being a Midniter during 1963 to 1965 was cool, and probably one of the most fun times in my life. There was almost no place in East Los Angeles we weren't welcome. We were constantly in demand, playing two, sometimes three gigs a night every weekend for months on end, traveling up and down the California coast, and having a ball. After our original singer, Lil' Ray Jiminez left for a solo career and Willie Garcia took over as lead singer, we started fooling around with an instrumental song to help conserve Willie's voice as he sang every song, every gig, every night. We all put in a small contribution to our new version of '2120 Michigan Avenue ' that Benny Lopez and Roy Marquez were playing around with, and we played it for he first time as a complete song at a rock n' roll concert at East L.A. College in 1964, and the crowd loved it so much, we decided to record it.

"Naming it after the most popular cruising spot in Los Angeles, 'Whittier Boulevard' was an instant hit, and we played it at all our performances. The song connected East L.A., cruising, dancing, and Thee Midniters forever after that. A few years ago, I was called up on stage to join the popular L.A. band Satisfaction in a version of "That's All', a popular Midniter favorite. Man! It had been years since I played any Midniter music , and it all came back to me, and I had a ball!

"A couple of months ago, another popular L.A. band The Mad Latins, who specialize in Midniter music, invited me up to join them for a Midniter tune. We blended so well, one song turned into a set, and I felt 18 years old again. When lead singer Louie Parra unexpectantly shouted out 'Let's take a trip down Whittier Boulevard!', the band looked at me in appreciation, and we all broke out into a full blown, foot stomping version of that song that filled the dance floor...just like back in the day!...I'll never forget that. That group of Midniters that played on that first album will always be the Midniters people remember, and I'm proud to have been one of them ."

Music collector, producer, and author Ruben Molina remembers: "I was a young teenager in East L.A. hanging out with friends and playing records while admiring how their older sisters got all dolled up and pretty to go see Thee Midniters in concert. If we weren't playing their records, Thee Midniters were on the radio, on the Huggy Boy or Art Laboe Show. Man, I was impressed, and I couldn't wait till I was old enough to go see Thee Midniters in concert. One night they played at a local spot in my neighborhood, and it was an exciting social event for all of us. We all got dressed up and saw East L.A.'s music heroes perform. Afterward, we all went cruising on Whittier Boulevard. The street was crowded with lowrider cars and pretty girls, and everybody was listening to 'Whittier Boulevard' and other popular Midniter songs on the radio. It was a wonderful time to be young, and East L.A. was happening...and Thee Midniters were a big part of that."

Guitarist Chris Reserva of the Satisfaction Band remembers: "Thee Midniters and other popular Chicano groups from East L.A. like the Jaguars with the Salas Brothers, Cannibal & the Headhunters, and others inspired me to become a musician, and helped form my musical tastes. Due to the song "Whittier Boulevard', I just HAD to cruise the boulevard with my friends as a teenager, while blasting the radio and listening to Thee Midniters, just to check out the scene everybody was talking about. It was a fun time, and so much good music generated out of the East Side that it became one of my favorite hangouts and inspirations when I was young. I just couldn't get enough of that East Side sound...especially Thee Midniters and Whittier Boulevard".

East L.A. Revue Radio Station owner & music collector Steven Chavez remembers: "I lived in Central L.A. near the Coliseum, and I remember taking a street car to East L.A. with my good buddy Louie Gonzalez to go see Thee Midniters in concert at East L.A. College in 1965. We paid $1.75 a ticket (a lot of money for a young guy back in those days) and the place was so crowded, we had to stand in the aisle as there were no more seats available by the time we got there. I couldn't see the band or stage initially, but once Thee Midniters were introduced, and they screamed in unison "Let's take a trip down Whittier Boulevard!' , the stage rose almost magically from underground, and there were the "Mexican Beatles from East L.A." , playing the most popular song in the land. The crowd went berserk, as everybody started dancing, and every girl in the house was screaming. The girls screamed so loud and for so long, I hardly heard the music, but it was a magical moment to be there among the thousands of fans. Bass guitarist and back up singer Benny Lopez bore a slight resemblance to Beatle Paul McCartney at the time, and he and Willie got the most screams and adoration from the girls...lucky guys!".

East L.A. music legend and Tierra bandleader Rudy Salas remembers: "Man!... I was a teenager cruising Whittier Boulevard regularly back in those days. My brother and I were playing with the Jaguars, and we had already recorded a couple of records for Eddie Davis and Rampart Records, and we were on top of the world. Chicano rock n' roll music was in heavy demand all over Los Angeles, and we enjoyed playing the same venues on the same circuit with such popular bands as Max Uballez & the Romancers, Cannibal & the Headhunters, the Blendells, the Premiers, and of course, the leaders of the pack, Thee Midniters, who pretty much set the standard for a lot of us.

"We had a ball, playing a lot of the same popular cover songs as well as our own material. East L.A. was alive with music, and it was a vibrant exciting time to be alive. I first saw Thee Midniters perform at the Paramount Ballroom. Lil' Ray Jiminez was their lead singer, and when he broke out with his trademark song ' I Wh Have Nothing', I was in awe that a 15 year old Chicano kid had such talent and vocal range, and he held the screaming audience in the palm of his hand, and the band backed him up perfectly. We all tried to emulate Thee Midniters after that, as they had style. When they came out with ' Whittier Boulevard', they just brought what we already knew to the attention of the World...music in East L.A. was what was happening, and East L.A. was the place to be. There was so much brotherhood, love, and respect among the musicians at that time...no wonder it felt so good. Thee Midniters remind me of that time".

Original bass player and back up singer Benny Lopez remembers: "Being a Midniter was one of the most exciting times of my life. We had a ball playing all over Los Angeles, and so many other good bands were doing the same thing. Places like The Big & Little Union Halls, The Paramount Ballroom, Salesian High School, The Kennedy Hall, and East L.A. College always saw us playing in front of huge hometown crowds. Prior to recording our first album, we had to adjust to some changes after our popular lead singer Ray Jiminez left for a solo career.

Lil' Willie Garcia stepped in and filled his shoes nicely, but we didn't want to burn him out, so I began to think of an instrumental song we could do that would give his voice a little rest during our performances. The Rolling Stones had recorded a catchy song called '2120 Michigan Avenue ' that I really liked, and I used to play around with it during rehearsals and breaks. On one of those occasions, I was playing around with the bass rift and guitarist Roy Marquez jumped in with a little ad libbing on guitar...it only lasted a couple of seconds, but I liked what I heard, so I came up with the idea of partialy re-writing the song to fit our band's style.

"Roy and I charted the music arrangements. Organ player Ronnie Figueroa was always our crack up guy who did gritos, screams, and crazy laughing, and the crowd loved that, especially on ' Land of 1000 Dances' , so we opened the song with that. He was also great on the Hammond organ. Romeo Prado and Larry Rendon added some nice horn rifts. George Dominguez could play some killer guitar leads, so he opens up once the song starts, and lets loose. After a few nips here, and a few tucks there, we came up with a complete song and tried it out on the crowd at East L.A. College....BAM! We had a hit!

Since the Rolling Stones named their song after a popular location in England, we named our song after a popular location in East Los Angeles...and where was more popular than 'Whittier Boulevard ? The rest is history, and Thee Midniters will forever be remembered by that song. The Conti Family and Chattahoochie Records also played a big part in the success of that album, for which I, along with the rest of the guys, shall be forever grateful for giving us a place in Chicano Music history.

"Geoge Salazar and I left the band shortly after the recording of that album, and Willie Garcia left a few years later, and the original sound of Thee Midniters was gone. It was the end of a fun and exciting era."

Many replacement artists have joined and played with Thee Midniters since then, most notably singers like Hank Castro and Charlie Mu??oz, drummers like Danny LaMont and Aaron Ballesteros, bass player Jimmy Espinosa (who is still with the band), and horn men like Bobby Navarrete and Bobby Loya, among others.

They have all helped bring back and keep the legacy of Thee Midniters alive, but the original group of artists who played and recorded on the original 1965 Midniters on Whittier Boulevard" album: singer Willie Garcia, trombonist Romeo Prado, saxophonist Larry Rendon, bass player Benny Lopez, drummer George Salazar, organ player Ronnie Figueroa, guitarists Roy Marquez and George Dominguez will always be remembered as the group of guys who put the "Thee" in THEE MIDNITERS...and Whittier Boulevard in East L.A. on the map!

Thanks for the memories, guys!

This one's for you, Scotland! Thanks for looking our way!

About Frankie Firme ~ Contributing Editor:
Frankie Firme is the Al Capone of the microphone & the Hitman of West Coast Chicano Soul
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